I’m not a fan of trying to define anything by a single word. It tends to be a fruitless effort that, more than an exercise in synthesizing, fails to consider most of the facets any one thing comprises and is comprised of in its relation with the world. Even so, this doesn’t mean that there are indeed certain are words and concepts that spring to mind first when we think about something.
As such, Beautiful is the first word to pop into my mind when I think about The Talos Principle.
For me, this game conveys many of the same feelings that works like Shadow of the Colossus and Journey did: beauty, expansiveness, solitude. But while in SotC you’re travelling with Agro, there’s this girl whose condition is uncertain and the Colossi – whose existence is actually one aspect that is discussed in the TP – and in Journey I met someone else pretty early on, I’d argue that those games are in actuality more about developing comradery in an expansive and seemingly lifeless landscape. With The Talos Principle, on the other hand, I experienced what may have been the most daunting and heavy sensation of isolation I’ve ever felt in a game.
When you start playing, you appear in this place that looks like the ruins of an ancient Roman city, this voice welcomes you to their “garden”, and of you go. In that moment, the beauty of the place, the degradation of the man-made elements of that environment and the music made me stop for a second. And then, not long after you arrive somewhere else that seems even more open, since you’re in some sort of island, looking at the ocean and the other islands and looking around me with that same song playing made me put down the controller and try to appreciate this beautiful sense of dread that I hope I never experience in my life.
It may seem somewhat contradictory, but I was at the same time in awe of all the beauty, terrorized at the loneliness, and thankful for the life I currently have. I don’t want to be too overly dramatic, as I myself tend to not enjoy over-dramatization of things, but considering that those early moments actually made me cry, I’m finding it difficult to convey it in another way.
Moving on, James Portnow called this game “Portal and The Stanley Parable's Beautiful Lovechild”, and I can definitely see where he’s coming from. This is a philosophical kind of game, where main elements to the gameplay come in the form of puzzles that you need to solve in each area, which award sigils that you need to advance –according to that voice in the beginning. You don’t really know why you need to do it, which is actually also part of the narrative.
But before going into the narrative per se, I’d just like to mention that I had a blast solving these. For the most part, these were the kinds of puzzles that may seem impossible, but made me feel really good after solving them. You could say that for many other games, but it’s always a plus for me when more than frustration, the puzzles in a game make me feel like “I can solve this, I’m just missing something”. That, and the fact that it put me in a state of mind where I rejected the idea of consulting an FAQ or something.
And besides the sigils you also have stars that you can collect, but with those you really need to embrace an out-of-the-box type of thinking, since in some cases you may have to actually take an element from one end of the map to the other side.
As I said before, this is a philosophical game; as in, this is a game that deals with a lot of philosophical questions related to what means to be alive and the value of existence. I understand this may be more of a turn-off than a selling point for some (many?) people – myself included. So I’ll just say that my hat is off to Tom Jubert and Jonas Kyratzes for their wonderful writing, and that is indeed important as there is a lot to read. Seriously, if you're not a fan of that maybe leave it be, but I urge you all to give it a go.
Heads up, I will be spoiling major aspects of the story. If you’ve finished the game and/or you’re ok with that, please go on.
While it could very easily fall into the trappings of cheap philosophy and preachiness, The Talos Principle poses problems, questions and situations in a very direct manner. After that initial brush with isolation, you begin having access to terminals, where you you’re able to check entries left in the library (a simple but elegant touch to make this all feel in-game, which I love) and eventually someone starts communicating with you form the other side.
This aspect is very reminiscent of the Shin Megami Tensei games, where you have the omnipresent godly entity and the opposing, doubt-inducing Lucifer-like being. And, like the SMT series, it is not as interested in the right or wrong aspect of morality as with the weight and importance of the choices one makes to define who one is. That, to me, is 100% more interesting and relevant than when a game – as in the creators – try to tell what you should or should not do, should or should not think; like when they make sure to shove some moral down your throat by the end of the game. Fortunately, while morals may be drawn from here and ideas may grow, it’s up to us playing to being more or less open to that because answers are not given, in this regard.
Right in the beginning, the game presents with you with a test to verify if you are human or not, for the purpose of overriding the system and granting you access to the library. This happens to work as one of those personality tests, similar to the one in Silent Hill: Shattered Memories for example. This is a feature in games that I, as someone with an academic background in Psychology, am curious to check out, mostly because I suspect that it won’t work that well, unfortunately. But that’s how it is: psychological profiling is something really delicate which needs to have a very delicate balance between broad strokes that don’t confine a person and certain specificities that actually explain something.
Much to my surprise, what the screen showed was a pretty accurate representation of me, given my answers to the questions. They actually did something pretty simple, but immensely important in terms of your options. Even if you get binary choices, if the answers are “Broadly Agree/Disagree” instead of “Agree/Disagree” or “Yes/No” I’ll find it more adequate with most of our values, since I make an effort to point out exceptions I feel may be relevant. Also, if some of your answers contradicted, that specific contradiction not only matters for your profile, but comes up later in the game – at least it for me it did.
For the rest of the game, there were many a time when I just sat there, contemplating a question and deciding what to answer because some conversations got really freaking intense. Chatting with a troubleshooting program. In a game. Yep.
By looking at the back of the box, you can immediately see that you play as a robot in a world that you later find out is a virtual reality scenario conjured up by a master AI. There have been many versions of your own AI before, as there have been of other kinds of AIs. Some of them leave information on the walls – with you being able to do the same – in an attempt to understand the world they’re in and what their purpose is.
Funny story: finding out that I was actually in a virtual world made me somewhat apprehensive. It was like all that beauty I’d been admiring up until then had been devoid of meaning because they were not “real”. Then shit got really freaking meta when I suddenly realized the scenery I was admiring for so long was always virtual because I was playing a damn game! Mind blown.
Seriously though, it was something that I did experience and it contributed even more to the whole question of what is real, what has value, what is important and where do I stand.
From the library files you access and some voice diary entries from the person who was in charge of the human conservation project (because people got extinct), which set this up pretty well, and you get to know this person particularly well, and it gets really emotional when you get to those later memories and she opens up about how she felt in relation to this project and what it meant for her. It’s a brilliant window to the world of the past, which may be our future (?) and how preservation of our history and our culture tends to be best way to achieve some form of immortality.
One common criticism I read about has to do with how the puzzles and the rest of the story don’t really intertwine that much. Sure, the voice in the sky tells you to figure them out in order to reach salvation, but it seemingly has nothing to do with what may be considered the actual narrative. Well, besides this ending where you retrieve a minimum amount of sigils, walk through a door and get your memory reset and start the game again, there’s the option to climb a tower that exists in the plane between the three main areas. The voice warns you to not go near that tower, while the one in the computer lets that idea grow in your mind. It tells you it’s all for nothing though, but it got me curious.
From the start I intended to complete every puzzle, and then climb the tower. I didn’t know if I needed the stars for anything, but after reaching the fifth floor and seeing a 6th floor that I still didn’t have access to, I didn’t want to take any chances. I went back, got everything done and came back. When I input the code for the 6th floor, instead of the elevator going up it started going down to the basement, giving me the option for a 3rd ending. Here the voice – which is called Elohim, by the way – congratulates you for your perseverance and diligence and gives you the opportunity to be immortalized on a sanctuary and guide the next generations.
Although the first time I saw this I went “nope”, turned tail and climbed the tower to get the… freedom ending, I’ll call it, I found this one to be the most interesting. That’s because there are other characters, other AIs that seem to have followed this path not to continue spreading Elohim’s purpose, although some did do that, but to help the coming generations climb the tower that they couldn’t. This is also a core idea of the game, how the achievements of an entire species are the result of all the efforts from those individual entities over the course of several millennia. How we can only get unlock our potential due to the actions and decisions of the past.
Sure, this may seem pretty obvious, but the game shows it to you and lets you experience that developmental dynamic in a rather concrete fashion. And it gives you the opportunity to be one of those stepping stones that will help someone eventually reach farther and farther. Maybe you couldn’t climb that tower, but your knowledge and experience will be instrumental for someone else to be able to do it. That’s also a beautiful thought, I believe.
Well, those were some of my thoughts on The Talos Principle. I loved it, it’s beautiful and it made me reflect on a lot of important aspects of life. I get the feeling this may have become somewhat confusing, but I hope I managed to convey what an amazing experience this game was for me.
Have a nice [insert time of day you're in when reading this] and enjoy life. Yours, preferably.